María Antonietta Berriozábal, a San Antonian whose name is synonymous with community organizing and political activism, is releasing her memoir in May of 2011, chronicling her family’s experience of immigrating to the United States and her subsequent rise to become the first Latina to serve on the city council of a major U.S. city. Berriozábal read from María: Daughter of Immigrants at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center on Saturday, November 6 — the 100th anniversary, to the day, of her parents’ crossing of the U.S.-Mexico border as they fled the violence of what became the Mexican Revolution.
When I asked Berriozábal what prompted her to write a book about her life, she was quick to answer that the seed was planted by other women in her spiritual and social-justice circles. Specifically, her friend Antonia Castañeda urged her on, admonishing her that she had an obligation to share the story of her life. Struggling against the perceived self-importance a memoir connotes, Berriozábal insists the book is not ultimately about her, but about all those that shaped her life, helping her become the strong female leader she is today. Writing María: Daughter of Immigrants, she said, “is one way I can honor my history, my family, and the values I inherited from them.”
A stint as secretary to the general counsel for HemisFair ’68 sparked Berriozábal’s interest in politics. She realized that if she became involved in the political system she could acquire skills that would help her organize for her community. Issues such as sustainable development, affordable housing, investment in youth and elderly programs, care for the environment, and neighborhood revitalization were paramount to her agenda. Tenacious dedication to those values led the young politician to disagree with more established leaders over planned developments like the Alamodome and the Applewhite Reservoir, which Berriozábal deemed a waste of money.
After serving as San Antonio City Councilwoman from 1980 to 1991, Berriozábal ran for mayor. She lost in the runoff election, but not before garnering 47 percent of the votes. Clearly, the mayoral candidate’s social-justice message resonated with the people.
Berriozábal is convinced that if San Antonio doesn’t invest in older neighborhoods, the outcome will be communities continuing to suffer from lower-quality education. One of her mantras, “Working for housing is also working for education,” would look great on a T-shirt or a poster and could certainly be a rallying cry for all those who look to her for inspiration. As Berriozábal sees it, a low-value housing market does not attract investment from private or public sectors, which means less funding for health and education services.
Although there is plenty of local buzz about Berriozábal’s book, she hopes to reach readers and thinkers across the country; she likes to imagine that the book will prompt others to share their own stories, thereby ensuring that the conversation about why immigrants are important to the nation will gain momentum. And with immigration under constant attack, the story of one migrant family that formed strong, lasting, and beneficial community bonds with a city on this side of the border offers a different, more hopeful perspective on the of-the-moment issue.
Much as the hands of her grandmother and mother skillfully wove thread and yarn to create bordados (embroidery) and tejidos (intricate woven pieces), Berriozábal has made her own tapestry from the threads of her life in paying humble tribute to her forebears. But her work is also a testament to all the immigrants who helped build this country and who continue to contribute to it in so many ways.
María: Daughter of Immigrants will be published by Sor Juana Press (sisterfarm.org/sor-juana-press.html), the independent publishing house of Santuario Sisterfarm, an organization she helped found that is “committed to the common good of the whole Earth community.” •
Leticia Medina blogs for the San Antonio Current on literature at blogs.sacurrent.com.